The pit is ready every Sunday afternoon by five o’ clock. Rose petals are strewn, a bunch of agarbattis is stuck into the ground, and mikes are tested. It’s time for a weekly bout of grappling at the Jama Masjid dangal maidan. Dozens of onlookers have already gathered along the grassy embankment framing the neat square of mud in the middle; dozens more are milling in. This is the only open ‘exhibition ground’ for their sport, one of the old favourites of Delhi. They are lucky this Sunday, but only just — the overcast sky is saving them from the summer sun, but the humidity is oppressive. Yet, dripping sweat, the gathering silently waits for the fights to begin.
The bouts are jointly organised by the Itehadi Dangal Committee, whose chief patron is the Imam of Jama Masjid, and the Delhi Wrestling Association headed by Guru Brahmachari. Among the participants, who have gathered thanks to their affiliation with the dozen-odd akharas in and around Delhi, are faces from both communities. Haji Mohammad Salim, general-secretary of the Itehadi Dangal Committee, offers pranam to Guru Brahmachari and introduces him as his ‘leader’. It hasn’t been such a picture of harmony all through the bouts’ three-decade history. They restarted a month and a half back. A fight over the control of the games had landed up at court, which directed the MCD to take charge. A subsequent plea by enthusiasts won back the right to stage them again.
The mikes crackle to life as the girls come in, carrying a thick mat of tarpaulin among them. Bare-bodied studs wearing tightly-drawn briefs skulk around, waiting for their turn that would come after the girls. By the time the girls spread out the mat on the loose earth, the huge figure of Master Chandgiram, their sharp-tempered guru, lumbers in propped on two sticks. As soon as he sits down, Chandgiram, a Padmashri and Arjuna awardee who starred in the 1969 flick Tarzan 303, hits out at one of the eight girls with a stick and barks, “Kutton, go and fight. What are you waiting for? Neelam, kick Sudesh.” Baffled, I ask whether this too is a ritual. Chandgiram says, “No, no. They are animals. They only know the language of the stick. How else would I control them?”
Aged 14 to 18, they look far from it. Sudesh, 15, from Karnal in Haryana, was encouraged to join Chandgiram’s akhara by her father two and a half years back. Was it because she was the feistiest among the five siblings? She nods shyly. Rekha Kadyan(18) from Panipat, who has come second at a junior nationals, says, “When I first moved to the akhara two years back, I used to miss my family. Now I don’t.”
The girls are doing their schooling or junior college on correspondence, while they focus on their aim: to get to the Games. Asian, Commonwealth and then Olympics. Their inspiration is Chandgiram’s own daughter, Sonika Kaliraman, a former Asian junior championships gold medallist in wrestling.
Guru Brahmachari says, “This is not the real game, these short bouts on gadda. The real fight is longer, sweated out on mitti.” Chandgiram chips in to make clear his preference for bouts of three rounds, each of two-minute duration. The “real game” starts when the girls roll up their mat and the boys move in. The crowd, by now more than 200-strong, starts to cheer louder. Every good move is applauded, every attempt at holding on to the opponent’s briefs booed. Sitting garlanded among the front-benchers are a couple of “guests” from Pakistan. Arif Amir Tipu, a swarthy trader with an unforgettable gash across his left cheek, informs, “My father and uncles used to be pehelwans. My grandfather practised in Kolhapur, then the centre of the sport in undivided India. Sadly, the tradition is dying in Pakistan.”
It’s time for the last round. The commentary hits fever-pitch: “…Yet another great move. Wah, what a game...”